College Bound—on a Promise

updated 06/01/2009 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/01/2009 01:00AM

Ramona Martin despaired of ever setting foot on a leafy campus. Bright and ambitious, she lost her mom in a car crash in 2007—her dad had died years earlier—and moved in with an aunt, a nurse assistant raising three children, who couldn't afford to pay for higher education. Then, Murphy Oil Corp., a family-built Fortune 500 company based in El Dorado, Ark., made an extraordinary gesture: a pledge to pay college tuition for nearly every student in town for the next 20 years. "I thought, 'Ooh, I get to go!'" says Ramona, 18, who will graduate from El Dorado High School and plans to major in engineering at Henderson State University this fall. "I'm so grateful for this."

The El Dorado Promise (www.eldoradopromise.com) is changing lives. In just the second year of the program, 312 students are attending college on $2.1 million of Murphy Oil funds. It's also bringing new life to this former southern Arkansas boomtown of 20,000, where sprawling homes with regal lawns sit a stone's throw from shantylike houses. Since 2007 school enrollment has increased, reversing a 20-year decline, and an astounding 95 percent of this year's seniors say they plan to go to college, a big leap from the 60 percent rate that held steady for years. Also up: civic pride. Despite the tough economy, residents approved tax hikes to finance a new high school and promote economic development. "Our community had been put down for so many years," says El Dorado High School guidance counselor Vince Dawson. "The Promise has given us something to be proud of."

Claiborne Deming, 54, Murphy Oil's recently retired CEO and president, knew the town was faltering three years ago—businesses were closing, the population was in decline, young people were moving away. "I said to myself, 'Claiborne, it's going to take something pretty bold here to pick this area up.'" So he came up with a pretty bold plan: He created a $50 million endowment to cover tuition for a generation of students.

He announced the plan on Jan. 22, 2007, before a packed auditorium at the high school. Any student, regardless of grade point average, was eligible for money to cover freshman year, but would need to maintain a 2.0 GPA to retain eligibility. At first there was stunned silence, then a wave of emotion that continues to inspire students every year. "Most of us were going to try as hard as we could to go to college," says senior Trey O'Shea, 17, who will attend Louisiana Tech University in the fall. "But now we are going—no ifs, ands or buts." For Ramona Martin, simply graduating high school was a huge step—neither of her parents did. As for going to college, that's something her folks could only dream about. Says Ramona: "My parents would just be so happy."

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